Truth and a measure of justice were served Wednesday when the last of three dozen new gravestones were installed at Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery. The project helps close a controversial chapter in race relations, government insensitivity and ignorant foul play.
In 1954 the Army Corps of Engineers dug up the remains of hundreds of bodies buried in several small cemeteries in order to flood the valleys that would become Folsom Reservoir. At least 36 sets of remains had been buried in the small town of Negro Hill, populated during and after the Gold Rush by many African-American miners and later their families.
The Corps memorialized those deceased with headstones that bore the racist form of the term negro, noting that the remains belonged to “Unknown — Moved from (‘N’) Hill by U.S. Government, 1954.”
Use of the so-called N-word was not only morally offensive, it was historically inaccurate. The then-Placer County town’s actual, historical name had been Negro Hill. The Corps has accepted general responsibility for the actions of its employees five decades ago.
A number of attempts have been made over the past years to right that wrong. El Dorado County has administered the cemetery throughout those years, but did not take an active role in the matter.
Michael Harris, director of the Negro Hill Burial Project, told the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors back on April 26 that his group, along with the Stockton Black Leadership Council has been working to correct both the language and the history associated with the issue for more than 10 years.
The county’s Cemetery Commission had voted to replace the markers in 2007 but no action was taken beyond that.
El Dorado Hills Boy Scout Joshua Michael proposed an Eagle Scout project to replace the original markers in 2009. He did many hours of research and lined up funding, but the project never materialized. It did, however, move the issue into the public eye.
District 1 Supervisor John Knight took up the matter last spring. Knight was contacted by the Prison Industry Authority, which offered to donate labor and materials to have new gravestones made and installed.
Granite stones manufactured by the Stockton Monument Co. would replace the old concrete markers, and inmates in the Career Technical Education program out of Folsom Prison would perform the necessary preparation and installation at the cemetery. The program is a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Carpenters Union local 185 and Laborers Union Local 1. Union specialists provide the classroom and on-the-job-training to selected inmates.
Five men from the PIA began the project Tuesday and completed the installation Wednesday afternoon surrounded by local and regional media.
Steven Abujen raked and smoothed the dirt around the last few markers. In prison for 12 years for burglary and drugs, the 51 year-old said his year in the Career Tech program has been the first opportunity he’s really had to take positive control of his future. A Stockton native, he gives a great deal of credit to the program and hopes to get into the heating and air conditioning field when he is released.
A three-year participant in the Career Tech Education, John Cooks, 44, of Sacramento has been in Solano and Folsom prisons since 2003 for “property possession.” With two years left of his sentence, he plans to get into the ironworkers union eventually.
El Dorado County will take the lead in placing a historical display of the entire Negro Hill and relocation effort at the entrance to the cemetery as the final step in the project.